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Concern over fate of missing child slaves

DOUBTS over the fate of scores of child slaves held on a rusting ship off the West African coast grew last night after police in Benin were only able to locate a fraction of the children believed to have been on board the detained vessel.

Estimates that the MV Etireno had up to 250 child slaves aboard last week set off a frantic search along the western coast of Africa.

Nigerian Capt Lawrence Onome and several crew members were in Benin police custody last night after he ignored orders to stay with his ship.

The seizures are part of an official investigation that began Wednesday to determine whether or not the ship was trafficking children. In the search for answers, police in Cotonou have also begun questioning the ship's passengers both children and adults.

UNICEF and aid workers said between 30 and 40 children were being cared for in local shelters after being taken from the ship, but the ferry's arrival manifest said only seven children had been aboard.

The tale became more even more confused last night after an independent daily newspaper, Echo du Jour, reported major discrepancies between the names on ship's departure and arrival manifests.

The newspaper said Tuesday's arrival manifest contained more than 100 names different from those on the departure manifest of March 27. No explanation was given.

Although the arrival list recorded seven children, the departure list failed to indicate how many children had been aboard when the ship set out, the newspaper said.

Onome has said only "about 10" passengers were allowed to disembark in Gabon last week, where the ship had been seized by authorities for four days. None left the ship in Douala, Cameroon where the vessel subsequently docked for several days to refuel.

The Nigerian-registered Etireno became the center of world attention last week when Benin's government, citing officials in Cameroon, said a ship loaded with child slaves had been turned away from two African ports and was headed back to Cotonou.

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Passengers said they had been turned away from ports in Cameroon and Gabon because they didn't have legal documents to enter those countries. Most had made the journey in search of work abroad.